A permanent deed of conservation easement has been placed on the Ha’ikū property of W.S. Merwin, permanently conserving, preserving and saving The Merwin Palm Collection, along with the land and the poet’s home.
The Preservation of the Land and Home
The seed of this project was planted over three decades ago when Merwin purchased a plot of land in Pe’ahi Valley on the north shore of Maui, Hawaii. Over the span of nearly forty years, Merwin built an ecologically conscious home for himself and his wife Paula and planted more than 3,000 trees representing over 400 species of endemic, indigenous and endangered palms. He has transformed a place that was once considered “wasteland” into a lush and rare 19-acre tropical palm forest.
Initially, the soil was too stripped of nutrients to support the species of native trees and shrubs that had originally thrived there before it had been ruined by agricultural use, but Merwin says, “the condition of the soil did not, in itself, daunt me. I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human “improvement.” I loved the wind-swept ridge, empty of the sounds of machines, just as it was, with its tawny, dry grass waving in the wind of late summer.”
Merwin began to fulfill his dream the day he signed the escrow papers in 1977 and planted the first saplings along the road. He has continued to plant trees every day since, nurturing young palms with the help of compost, manure and buckets of dishwater hand-carried from the sink until the plants can fend for themselves and thrive on rainwater alone. The Merwins also survive on rainwater, which is held in cisterns around the property. The water is “pumped” by gravity and filtered by charcoal, sand and coral for use in the home.
In fact, every aspect of the home and the garden reflects Merwin’s ideas and feelings about nature and art. The property is as close to self-sustaining as the Merwins could make it. While preparing the site of the house, Merwin wanted to disturb the land as little as possible so no heavy machinery was used. The only cement—and Merwin tried to use it as little as possible—is in three cisterns, the floor of a small tool room, and the footings of the house. For 25 years, electricity has come from solar energy. The forest of trees keeps the house naturally cool.
In recent years, Merwin partnered with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust and his publisher, Copper Canyon Press, in order to establish this Conservancy which is intended to safeguard the land and ensure that the home and palm forest will be properly cared for when he and Paula are no longer able to do so.
Merwin says, “I hope that the planting of palms will continue to fill parts of the land that have not been planted up until now. I hope that a future head gardener will have something of the same desire that I have had: to try to grow as many species as possible of the world’s palms, wherever they can be acquired. That is an abiding part of our hope that this Conservancy will want save this bit of the Peahi streambed — what we have made here for those who come after us.”
The Kenyon Review published W.S. Merwin’s essay, The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream, in their Fall 2010 journal.
The essay serves as a historical record for The Merwin Conservancy, chronicling the initial discovery of the land and Merwin’s life with the land–“putting life back into the world.” It also looks at the practical aspects of the land and house, from water catchment and basement cisterns to daily gardening successes and failures.
In the essay, Merwin writes, “I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human “improvement.” I loved the wind-swept ridge, empty of the sounds of machines, just as it was, with its tawny, dry grass waving in the wind of late summer…I have been asked fairly often how I came to care about living things that are not human—for all that is commonly referred to as “nature.” There is a suggestion, sometimes, that a sympathy of that kind is somehow eccentric. Such use of the word “nature” seems to refer to something apart from “us.” Yet the sympathy seems to me natural, even if the overt first impulse of living organ- isms is rarely generous. I cannot remember a time when I did not feel that attraction, that delight in lives that were not human.”
Kenyon Review editor David Lynn and poetry editor David Baker chat with Poet Laureate and recipient of the 2010 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, W. S. Merwin.